The United States could challenge afresh the nuclear deal with Iran if the U.S. Congress decides to decertify Iran’s compliance with the Vienna agreement. But the European Union will not follow suit. Not only did the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini harshly criticize the statements made by U.S. President Donald Trump when announcing his intention to do away with years of diplomatic work, but a shift from words to action is now underway. This time around, the original EU3 contact group set up to discuss the Iranian nuclear program, made up of Germany, the United Kingdom and France, will be joined by Italy, hitherto excluded from the P5+1 (United Nations Security Council members plus Germany) talks.
The United States has asked for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to be reopened and for Tehran’s ballistic missile program to be included within the terms of the agreement. The matter was discussed during the initial meetings of the EU4 group held in Paris and on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano himself had sought to have Italy included in the contact group after years of exclusion during two U.N. General Assembly meetings and at the U.N. Security Council meeting held in recent months. One of the aims of the EU4 is to work towards a comprehensive solution to the nuclear issue that would also include the regional role played by Iran for the stabilization of the Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi conflicts.
The European Union and the Vienna agreement
Thus far, the European Union’s stance on fulfilling its commitments with regards to Tehran has been resolute. According to Brussels, the Vienna agreement should be preserved as it is. However, a number of critical positions emerged in Munich concerning Iran’s military role in regional conflicts. Specific mention was made of the missiles fired against Saudi Arabia by Yemen rebels, who have no organizational links with Tehran, and of Iran’s military presence in Syria, particularly on its border with Israel.
For the time being, U.S. diplomats have merely requested a commitment from European countries to discuss possible changes to the nuclear deal. To this extent, the very fact that the EU4 contact group has been set up signals a response to Washington’s request to review part of the Vienna agreement. The U.S. State Department is seeking a commitment from the European Union to discuss the implications of the existing Vienna agreement by May 12, when the United States will take a final decision on the validity of the deal. While the U.S. has not waived international sanctions against Iran, despite the fact that the Vienna agreement has now been in force for two years, Italy, Germany and France have started doing business again with Iran, and London has reopened its embassy in Tehran.
The Italian company Invitalia Global Investment recently signed a EUR 5 billion framework agreement with two Iranian banks – the Bank of Industry and the Middle East Bank. Among other things, the agreement sets the terms for funding future bilateral contracts in the form of credit lines to cover projects to be implemented in Iran by Iranian and Italian companies in the oil, chemical and metallurgical industries, and in the infrastructure and construction sectors.
Uncertainty over the Syrian conflict
One of the most challenging issues to assess with regards to bilateral ties with Iran is the evolving Syrian conflict. In this context, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the Munich conference itself and specifically addressing Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, brandished the remains of an Iranian drone shot down on Israeli airspace. On February 10, an Israeli F-16 was shot down by the Syrian Air Defense Force on its return to Israel after conducting an air raid in response the violation of Israel’s air space by the Iranian drone. On that occasion, Netanyahu accused Tehran of having orchestrated the attack carried out by Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses. Since then, tensions between Israel and Iran have skyrocketed. According to Israel’s Prime Minister, who has been highly critical of the Vienna agreement, Iran “is the greatest threat to our world.”
Fears about the risk of military escalation in the region are felt by both Israel and Iran. What worries Tel Aviv in particular is the construction currently underway of an Iranian military base near the city of Damascus, as well as the engagement of Shia militias alongside Kurdish and Syrian government forces against the Islamic State group (ISIS). Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, for his part, has also voiced concern about the escalating conflict. “Fear of war is everywhere in our region,” ha said. “If we were not there,” he added, “we would have Daesh in Damascus, and maybe in Beirut and other places.”